Motivation / Criterion
I have explored the use of using discrete, modular electronic triggers and pads festooned among my normal acoustic drum kit for several years, and documented this system, “the PercussioNeuron,” in previous articles.
However, that system (with seperate triggers mounted on stands or drums, each wired to to a tigger-to-MIDI converter, with sound mixed and routed in a seperate MIDI-controlled sound unit), while highly refined, has led me to explore the alternative of an “all in one” approach.
For new(er) project DrawN, I’ve been playing a simple 2-piece (kick and snare) kit, with only two cymbals, and no hi-hat, in order to play less habitually, and more as a “human drum machine” to serve the sonics of the more gentle pop songs. The fact that we’re taking a single car to and from small stages means I’m looking squarely for simplicity and consolidation of a electronic drum mulit-pads.
- 6+ onboard pads
- ability to load sound files used in band-mate’s demos.
- auxiliary external trigger-sensor and foot-conrol inputs
- at least one single-zone for triggering my Pearl Rhythm Traveler kick
- at least one dual-zone for head/rim triggering on the snare
- perhaps an auxiliary pad to serve as “e-hat”
- hi-hat style control of sound, to (foot)switch between “open” and “closed” sounds (of my choosing), and to stomp out time.
- pad brain and associated wires should not much more than an extra two-hand carry to the load in or setup.
A quick perusal of feature-sets listed on manufacturer’s websites and stores narrowed down field of fit candidates to:
- Roland SPD-s and SPD-sX
- Alternate Mode DrumKat (requires seperate sound module)
- Yamaha DTX-multi-12
- Alesis SamplePad Pro
After diving deeper, my budged ruled out the DrumKat, and the Roland manuals revealed that the (older) SPD-s would provide underwhelming external-triggering options, and the (newer) SPD-sX has threw out the hi-hat-style sound-switching possible on the predecessor “s”
So, I took a dive for the Alesis, and I soon found one for a great price out in central NJ. Thanks Ewan !
The Alesis SamplePad Pro, in a nutshell, is…
- 8 pads (6-main, and 2 “shoulder” along the top edge)
- a single stereo output and headphone with seperate volume controls
- 4 inputs for external sound
- a single stereo input (for mix-in pass through only)
- MIDI in and output for controlling (or being controlled by) other gear
- a simple screen and 4-button navigation
In applIcation, it has many more features than I can cover here, many of which are common to this family of products (volume mixing, mutually-exclusive sounds via mute-groups, etc), and would be familiar to anyone shopping for such tools.
Hence, my review will focus on what I found unique (good or bad) to practical application of the SP-pro.
Over-simple User interface
This is NOT my first Alesis e-drum purchase. I have spend major section(s) of a previous article(s) on both my previous Alesis DM-pro and my (present) Alesis Trigger IO.
The Alesis DM-pro had a crowded screen, navigated by using various buttons to jump between modes, save, etc.
The Trigger IO is dead-simple, perhaps to a fault. 2 “page buttons,” 2 “value” buttons, with an LCD flashing between the present Page and it’s value.
The Alesis SamplePad Pro’s user interfacing falls on the simple side of the middle, displaying multiple properties and their values on one bright blue screen.
This proves easy to get around; as there’s little depth (compared to the DMpro); the manual is less than 10 pages (per languages), and the whole system is limited to single home-screen (with selection and tweaking per program) and an Options menu with a few sub-menus.
Kits, Voices, Layers…
While it’s called the “SamplePad”, the unit cannot, by itself, sample sounds into it’s (auxiliary) audio input. One must load (44.1 kHz, 16 bit) wave files onto (the root director only) of a SmartMedia card set into the front-panel’s slot to use custom sounds.
In this way, you can load your own sound files to onboard RAM. I recall that some fellow synth-geeks use the term “ROMplers” to describe synthesizes that allowed expressive manipulation of fixed, un-changing wave-memory. Thus, since it cannot “sample” (verb), I’m resigned to refer to this Alesis product as a “RAMpler.”
Appealingly (to me) is that the SamplePad allows one to create
user “Kit”s by assigning combinations individual Sounds in any arrangement one likes to onboard- and external triggers. There is no constraint on assignment or combinations, so I could make a whole kit of one-shot shares, or looping tones, depending on the Mode.
Trigger Modes Go Loopy !
Any Voice can be set to one of several (play) Modes:
- Poly: triggers the Voice’s sound anew with each strike, allowing the sounds to mix and decay over each other, eating into the sound engine’s maximum polyphony…good for (more) realistic cymbal wash and drum rolls
- Mono: new hits cut off the old sound…useful for firing off musical phrases (without having them “pile up”) or abrupt synthetic sounds
- Loop: repeats both samples of a voice at the length of the longer. alternate hits toggle sound on/off. Good for riffs or drones, but neither controls nor follows any features MIDI or metronome tempo (which the SPD-S’s do in spades…)
- Hat: sets that pad to trigger as the kits (one) hi-hat construct, changing or trigger additional sounds according to action on the Hi-hat control pedal. This is what initially sold the unit for me.
- other non-voice commands for meta-control
- Stop: will stop all sounds
- Tempo: tapped to set the tempo of the onboard metronome
- Click: stops and (re)starts the onboard click.
While the onboard metronome could be configured to various tempos, time-signatures, and set to click in various sounds or even count in words, there is NO way to isolate the metronome to just a headphone/monitor mix. As confirmed by Alesis forum user’s who’ve had a peek at the circuity, the seperate Main and Phones knobs are just seperate volumes for the mixture of sounds and metronome. This makes the metronome useless for me. Additionally, the Metronome seems to neither generate nor follow MIDI clock.
Detail in your Voice:
Each Voice is can be either
- one of 200 (ROM) onboard Sounds, made of a pair of sound files (such as a snare head and rimshot) with pre-defined velocity-switching behavior (hit harder to trigger rimshot sound
- user-assigned pairs (“A” and “B”) of ANY user wave.
and one can have seperate sounds for
- each pad
- each zone of the two-zone trigger (my snare)
- each of the 4 parts of the (one) “hi-hat construct” per kit
- open hat sound
- closed had sound
- closure “chick” soun
- half-closed sound (analog control only)
- foot-splash (analog control only, triggerd by fast-closure)
and each layer (“A” and “B”) within sound can be have individual settings for:
- assigned User Wave (but you cannot mix ROM and USER waves, as ROM sounds are 2-wave constructs)
- tuning (+4 to -4 semitones)
- send to onboard Reverb (a splashy global preset)
- MIDI note (for triggering external gear ! …using a single Global MIDI Channel
- velocity swithing points (min- and max-) so you can use playing dynamics to switch between seperate ranges, or blend across overlapping ranges, of that hit-velocity messages (0-127) that each strike of that Voice generates.
The onboard reverb is a fixed global preset, no adjustments of its ambiance, character, or tonality, be it per-kit or even globally). The reverb sound plate-y and hollow, adding only moderate extra decay, and you can only adjust how much each voice Sends to that reverb on a per-kit level. I really hope they improve and deepen this for future OS updates.
While the above architecture certainly affords a refreshing degree of custom sound-design and freedom was, I found that the SamplePad waits until changing into a new kit to load the associated User Sounds’ WAVs, which was frustratingly slow. Moreover, if a Kit is built of several instances of the same WAV file (with different tuning/panning/etc settings) then it loads these redundant files separately.
Thankfully, when switching Kits, the SamplePad seems to hold the previous-kits sounds in memory and updated pads as you go, but it’s still frustrating to wait the better part of a minute to ready a Kit of 6 tunings of the same 2 second drone.
Jump Feet First
Hooking up the kick drum trigger and hi-hat control were as easy as plugging cables into the dedicated inputs on the back panel. Each of these has a sliding switch, toggling the Kick channel from trigger-action (with dynamics) to foot-switch actuation (none), and the Hat control from receiving either a switch (simple on off) or the action of a continual resistive-pedal action (which allows intermediate “half-open” sound, and velocity sensitive foot-closure). My brief search of online Forums suggest one can only use Alesis’ own Hi-hat pedal continuous controller for this latter feature.
Each pad of the SP pro lights up with blue under-light when struck, but this visual feedback only illuminates one pad a time, illuminating the pad triggered last (thus useless for external triggers), and does NOT indicate on/off status of looping voices.
One additional thing I found frustrating; there are paltry few resources to tune-up the response of individual pads.
Both my (now-dead) Alesis DM-pro and my (still in-use) Alesis Trigger IO had practical-but-nuanced features to not only personalize the feel of your triggers, but to optimize against cross-talk or false triggering. Those machines allow you to customize Global, per-sensor settings for:
- trigger threshold
- velocity remapping curves
- trigger gate-time / re-trigger suppression (to take only the first over-threshold event once a certain period without such events has elapsed)
Where, moreover, the DM-pro’s configurations added the one-of-a-kind PRO features of
- a dedicated (sensor/mic) input to track the noise floor !
- allowing you to store multiple setups in case you changed swapped between trigger-sets.
These are what I’d call “pro” featured products.
The SamplePad Pro has only…
- a “Sensitivity” setting (per Voice)
- the aforementioned per-layer settings of Velocity Switching
…but Velcoity switching can only be customized (above 0) for USER voices. This lead me to have Internal kick sounds either machine-gunning with false-triggers when set to higher Sensitivity, or have NO dynamics (missing softer kicks) with low Sensivity. I solved this by using ONLY User waves for the kick drum with minimum velocity set to 20 (which, of course, adds load time to these Kits…).
Look, I know that Alesis has had it’s ups and downs and changed hands more than many companies over the past few years, but it’s amazing to see such a profound dumbing-down, given somme of the past glory under the Alesis name.
Oh well; new standards from new owners Numark.
Updates and Phantom Features
I updated my SP to the lastest OS simply by dragging the file to the SD card and starting the unit. Said OS claims to fix some Pad Sensitivity issues, but doesn’t address my aforementioned (spoiled) disappointments.
I recall that, in their debut of the SP at NAMM (2014), their product rep suggested the use of some (upcoming) software tool for “drag and drop” kit creation. So far (as of 3 years later), the only software Alesis have to support the SP-pro is tool to make convert your sound files to have a data-structure and a text name that the SP-pro can handle.
Also, look at how the housing and has changed between the prototype shown at NAMM 2014…
…and the sale-model:
I prefer the sleeker housing of the NAMM 2014 prototype; it slants the screen and doesn’t have precariously-exposed volume knobs and media slot.
I’m starting to feel like Alesis’ use of the word “pro” is a bit of a “con,” but the features it does have for its price-point ($250+ street, I found $150 used) remain impressive and useful.
To move away from a feature-critique, let’s look as how I make use of it. Since I’ve been playing “the DrawN” kit with no toms, it was simple to make the SamplePad a centerpiece.
The newest kit for DrawN.
As such, the kit squares up to:
- two soft Sabian AAXsplosion crashes
- kick from RhythmTravler kit with single-zone RT-10K trigger
- snare from RhythmTravler kit with dual-zone RT-10S roland (head and rim)
- PD-10 for hi-hat (or similar) to keep from beating up any one onboard pad.
The SamplePad Pro mounted up easily on a standard generic 4-screw e-pad mounting post (for pipe-clamps), but the SP-pro required fine machine-threaded screws. Use rack-mounting screws !
After some simple setup, some occasionally-intuitive / occasionally-frustrating time getting used to the OS, I spent a day creating 3 kits to show off some of how it’s (relatively) open feature-set could prove advantagous in less-straightforward application (read; not just a tray of pads that sounded like normal drum kit).
Fist, I made a Kit out of the onboard Marimba voices to be played something like a steel drum “pan”, with the addition of a low pedal tone triggered by the kick.
Next, I edited some snippets of some various instruments playing the same melody to seperate sound files, set them to one-shot play,and explored re-triggering and drumming along with them. Since theres no “drum machine” or “time stretching” in this brain, you have to follow the sound by ear. Here we also see the external PD-10 pad used to create an unnatural-sounding hi-hat cymbal.
Given that the SP-pro can loop any sample, it’s easy (and tempting) to toss in a drum loop and play along. Lacking any rhythmic support for time-stretching, MIDI sync/sequencing or discrete metronome, this requires the human drummer to slave to the loop by ear.
That, to me, undermines the drummer’s job.
…but Looping Mode for samples get’s interesting when they can/should free-wheel, and this is something the SP
Last, I took a brief drone, chopped it into a brief fade-in/fade-out soundbyte, mapped it across the 6 main pads (sharing a mute-group) with different Tuning settings to make a synth of sorts, and used the 2 “shoulder” pads to toggle background vocal samples and STOP all.
While setting up this “synth kit,” I literally spend more less time dialing in the Tuning and MuteGroup settings than I did waiting for new copies of the same sample to load to each pad.
After 2 weeks of tweaking a bit of jamming, I’m both frustrated with some of it’s shot-falls, yet impressed with its elegant simplicity and flexibility.
It does it does well, and not much else, at a price point that’s competitively seperate from the kitchen-sink flagships from Roland and Yamaha.
For people looking to make the leap toward playing their own sound-files as drums, I’d highly recommend this as a a great point of entry. I just don’t know if I can call it “pro.”